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FCLAA helps legal aid offices assist each other

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Civil legal aid/Alpha Stock Images - you think about it, calling something the “Project Directors Association” could apply to a group of dam-building engineers or a middle-management business planning group.

The executive directors of legal aid offices around Florida decided their rather prosaic-sounding volunteer organization needed a better name, as well as a more formal status.

So last year, the Project Directors Association morphed into the Florida Civil Legal Aid Association and became a 501(c)4 nonprofit entity instead of a voluntary coalition.

Monica Vigues-Pitan, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami and president of FCLAA, called the new association “Project Directors Association 2.0.”

“It was not that the PDA was not working, it was that the PDA had gotten to a point where we had established very good relationships [between agencies] and we wanted to improve it into a more traditional structure,” she said.

The association’s articles of incorporation lay out its goals:

• To promote collaboration between the legal aid offices and increase their capacity to deliver justice and equity in the law.

• “To provide educational and professional growth opportunities.”

• Encourage local, regional, and national relationships that promote the exchange of ideas and information on access to justice and equity in the law.

• “To foster positive relations with allied member organizations to achieve access to justice and equity in the law.”

In carrying out those directives, Vigues-Pitan said the association recognizes that its members’ agencies have both unique and common problems.

“We have to reflect the communities as much as possible, because that’s the best way to engage the community. For all business, that is their goal,” she said. “Having said that, there’s a lot that is universal. Although the communities have different types of people, the issues that they’re facing when they’re low income are very similar.”

Right now, those problems include COVID-19-related matters like domestic violence, evictions and foreclosures, and getting approved government benefits such as stimulus and unemployment payments.

Particularly with the evictions, “we have been putting together training services,” Vigues-Pitan said. “Other programs are doing this as well. We look forward to sharing that information” both between legal aid offices and private attorneys doing pro bono.

And the ability to share is also paying dividends. She noted that Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, headed by Executive Director Jim Kowalski, is preparing several resources for potential clients on evictions, including providing information and a step-by-step program that asks questions and automatically fills out an eviction defense form.

“Once Jim’s program accomplished it, there’s no reason other programs can’t use it or a version of it,” Vigues-Pitan said. “That’s how we’re always talking about technology to make sure we’re sharing our best practices.”

Another technology issue is improving websites. With the onset of the coronavirus, more potential clients are turning to online contacts to legal aid. In the past year, the legal aid offices in Florida financed by the Legal Services Corporation set up a common internet access point where clients could apply for representation and it’s being expanded to other agencies, she said.

By the end of the year, Vigues-Pitan hopes that nine legal aid offices in Florida will be participating in that program, which has seen a huge spike in applications since COVID-19 hit.

Training is one area where the association has already achieved concrete results. Vigues-Pitan said instead of each office setting up a separate training program for common programs, the offices pooled their resources, got a matching grant from The Florida Bar Foundation, and one office was designated to hire staff to develop training programs.

“They’re doing a great job,” she said.

The association also is crafting a joint response to the Task Force on Distribution of IOTA Funds and shares experiences and plans on something Florida has had too much recent experience with — disaster relief, particularly from hurricanes.

The association also gives its members a chance to promote and inform Florida lawyers about what they do.

“The misunderstanding that people have is assuming we’re government attorneys, and we’re not,” Vigues-Pitan said. “We’re nonprofit associations that are doing civil legal assistance….

“There are the larger legal aid organizations that do a high volume of direct services and impact litigation, and then there are smaller programs that focus on particular issues [including impact litigation].”

The impact litigation is important, she explained.

“No matter how hard we try, legal aid programs cannot meet all of the needs of the low-income population we serve. When we get a positive result for one person, but the case affects thousands of others, that’s a huge win for us,” Vigues-Pitan said.

So far, the FCLAA has 25 member agencies around the state employing more than 400 legal aid attorneys and more than that number of support staff.

“To the extent that we can collaborate and put out a really compelling message, that’s a win,” said Vigues-Pitan.

It’s also PDA — Pretty Darn Awesome.

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